NORTHWEST ARKANSAS Focus : 4 counties’ tallies slow; votes called 2 days late
BY TRACIE DUNGAN AND CHARLIE MORASCH
Posted on Friday, November 10, 2006
Election troubles lingered across Northwest Arkansas like a heavy fog in an Ozark valley, with some counties counting and recounting ballots well into Thursday evening.
In Benton County, the new results changed the outcomes in eight races, including one Quorum Court race, five aldermen contests, and elections for a city attorney and a city clerk.
In Carroll County, election officials worked into the night to generate unofficial election totals as perplexed poll watchers questioned whether the tally legally constituted a count, recount or audit of Tuesday’s vote.
Newton County finished counting votes from Tuesday’s election late Wednesday, after having problems with an optical scanner that reads paper ballots. Johnson County reported no technical problems but didn’t finish its count until Thursday afternoon.
BENTON COUNTY Benton County Election Coordinator Jim McCarthy announced the correct yet-to-becertified results in a news conference Thursday. Election workers incorrectly had entered running vote totals into a software program they used to post election returns at a Tuesday night campaign watch party at the Clarion Hotel in Bentonville and on the Internet. When certain precincts were entered, previous votes cast were subtracted, he said. The county’s vote totaling equipment and electronic voting software worked correctly, he said.
“We screwed up,” McCarthy said. “The fault was human; the fault was right here.”
McCarthy said election officials noticed low voting tallies Wednesday morning before finding the problem and republishing results Thursday.
“We did not recount anything,” McCarthy said.
Thursday’s published election results reversed six wins for candidates and changed matchups in two election runoffs.
Justice of the Peace-elect Frank Winscott and supporters cheered when McCarthy read the new vote tally Thursday.
The announcement reversed Tuesday’s result that had showed Winscott losing to Cheryl Murphy.
Election officials must decide whether 25 to 30 provisional ballots will be counted before the election will be certified next week, McCarthy said.
Benton County Clerk Mary Lou Slinkard said some provisional ballots should not have been disputed and should have been counted Tuesday.
Besides the new results, the new election numbers show that about 79, 000 people, or 83 percent of Benton County’s registered voters, participated in the election. The first count showed about 47, 000 votes cast in the county.
“That’s a lot higher,” Slinkard said. “I don’t know what to tell you. We’ve had pretty close to that in a general election year, but that number, I don’t know.”
Slinkard said she remembered past Benton County elections with voter turnouts of about 70 percent.
CARROLL COUNTY Carroll County Election Commission Chairman Levi Phillips made it clear from the outset on Election Day that the panel wouldn’t stop counting votes long enough to release partial vote totals. He said then that the first numbers released would be complete, unofficial results. But there were problems with new voting software Tuesday night and Wednesday. All day Thursday, the commission reran the ballots through scanners and computers. By nightfall, the community still didn’t have an idea about the outcomes of local races and ballot questions. Shortly after 5: 30 p. m., election officials began running the last box, containing the county’s 175 absentee ballots. Vote totals released about 8: 15 p. m. showed that the Eureka Springs ballot question seeking to change the way marijuana arrests are handled had passed by about 150 votes. With all three precincts reporting, the unofficial but complete vote totals were: For........................ 598 Against................... 345
Clint Reed, executive director of the Arkansas Republican Party, watched the ballot count all day at the Carroll County Courthouse in Berryville. Reed had been asked to observe by Bryan King, Republican candidate for state House District 91, and Harley Barnum, chairman of the Carroll County Republican Committee.
“Right now, I haven’t seen anything that leads me to believe that any election fraud has occurred or anything like that,” Reed said. “With these new technologies comes a learning curve.”
Barbara Lightner, who served as a poll watcher during the vote counts, said the county appeared to be having problems merging its early voting, absentee and Election Day precinct totals.
She also noticed that election officials were having trouble breaking totals out into precinct-by-precinct results while merging totals of votes cast by paper ballot and on touch-screen machines.
The Election Systems & Software Co. computer technician had to call the company headquarters because he didn’t how to make the software perform those operations, Lightner said.
“On election night, we ran all 30 [precinct boxes ],” Phillips said. “ES&S called us and advised us to stop.”
The company told election workers to reset the machines and put the accumulated vote information on a portable computer hard drive.
Phillips said he and other election officials couldn’t make the information from the computer drive print in a manner that they could be sure represented accurate counts.
Phillips said he wouldn’t sign off on any results he wasn’t certain were accurate.
Cindy Baker, an attorney in Berryville, filed a challenge Tuesday night over the absentee ballots. Baker, who said she was representing some Republicans in the county while watching the vote count, said the absentee ballots weren’t counted in public as required by state election law.
Anita Langhover and Rebecca Benefield, two poll watchers, arrived at the courthouse on election night between 5: 30 p. m. and 6 p. m. and stumbled upon county election workers opening absentee ballots.
Benefield and Langhover said the election workers seemed surprised and slammed the door in their faces.
“We said we were poll watchers, and we just asked what was going on. There were all these ballots on the table, and we were pretty much soundly put out,”